The Battling Belles of Bataan


This is a continuation of “American Nurses Joined the Military in the Philippines” posted last week.


Army Nurses rescued from Santo Tomas – Photo Credit: Center of Military History


On the early morning of May 6, the nurses were informed that General Wainwright decided to surrender and hence their imminent capture. However, the nurses, doctors and corpsmen had been ordered by the Japanese to stay at their posts in the hospital laterals and to continue to treat the wounded. They were as sick as their patients.

In July, they were told that the sick and wounded would be transferred to Manila on a freighter, the Lima Maru and the nurses would board a ship the next morning. They were taken to Santo Tomas, a former university campus on 50-acre land with 12-ft concrete and stone wall and iron fence. The Santo Tomas Internment Camp (STIC) held professionals, businessmen, women and children of all nationalities as Japanese prisoners. Internees were allowed very little space so some of them built “shanties” outside and planted vegetable to supplement their daily allotment of rice. It was a little community where they engaged in some community events to fight boredom. They had games, plays  and even schools. Despite the diversions, prison was still prison, with all its discomforts and deprivations. The nurses carried on their nursing duties while being imprisoned and were subjected to the same inhumane treatment as other prisoners.


Santo Tomas Internment Camp
These are the huts (shanties) many of the internees built at Santo Tomas to escape the overcrowded conditions in the dormitories.


As their collective sense of humor returned, so did their collective sense of mischief. The Japanese had ordered the internees to bow to the guards, and when the nurses entered Santo Tomas they were given lessons in the proper obeisance. Now the women decided to have some fun. Usually when a group of internees passed a guard, they all bowed together and he bowed once in response. They got an idea of having thirty nurses pass the guard at spaced intervals. Just as the guard finished one bow, another nurse would come along and bow; two dozen bows in as many minutes and the guard usually took a walk. After that when the guards saw the nurses coming, they’d turn their backs so they didn’t have to bow to them.

By May 1, 1943, there were nearly 4,200 people in STIC. Fearing epidemic or riots, the Japanese decided to set up another internment camp at Los Banos southeast of Manila on the shore of Laguna de Bay. The navy nurses volunteered to go to Los Banos away from the army nurses’ control. Three days after eight hundred men left for Los Banos, some eight hundred new internees arrived at Santo Tomas.

During the first week of 1944, control of Santo Tomas was passed from the Japanese Bureau of External Affairs to the War Prisoners Department of the Imperial Japanese Army. This was when condition started to worsen. The package line, the internees’ link to the outside world was shut down, bundles of extra food, clothing and other provisions were not allowed into the camp. Each month brought in new restrictions and more harassment. Rations of food diminished. The Japanese were actually starving the prisoners. They were down to two meals a day and very little of it. Men on average lost 31.4 pounds and women 17.7 pounds. At Los Banos, the internees were starving as well. A good number of the internees at both camps died of malnutrition, starvation and sickness.

As fall approached in 1944, there was still no sign of a fleet or an invasion force until Sept. 21 when they heard buzz of aircraft overhead and those on the ground saw the markings on their wings – white stars and blue circles, the insignia of American aircraft.

“They’re here,” people cried. “Thank God, they’re here.”

Every day thereafter air-raid sirens sounded across the city. During the lull in bombing, the Japanese army put another two hundred soldiers in Santo Tomas where they began bayonet practice and drill on the playing fields. When the air raids returned on Oct. 15, the Japanese cut down on the prisoners’ diet to less than 1,000 calories per day.

On January 9, 1945, troops of the American Sixth Army, part of the large invasion force assemble to take the main island of Luzon and at last liberate the Philippines, established a solid beachhead at Lingayen Gulf, a spot on Luzon’s west coast roughly a hundred miles north of Manila and the campus of Santo Tomas.

On the early hours of Feb. 3, the Santo Tomas internees heard explosion across the city. They saw two reconnaissance aircraft flying over Grace Park. Later in the day, more planes returned. One of the pilots tossed a small object from the cockpit, a pair of aviator’s goggles with a note attached.

“Roll out the barrel. Santa Claus is coming . . .” (There are several version of this message.)

Sometimes, after dusk, the nurses could hear the gunfire closing in. Then there was a loud explosion at the gate. Tanks rolled up to the front door. It stopped in front of the Main Building and two shadowy figures in uniform appeared in front of it looking up at the windows.

“Hello folks! Are there any God damned Japs in there?”


Freed American and Filipino prisoners outside main entrance of Santo Tomas University which was used as a Japanese prison camp before Allied liberation forces entered the city. Manila, Luzon, Philippines. February 05, 1945. Photo Credit: Carl Mydans.


Screaming and shouting, the internees all burst into the plaza, encircling the tanks and the soldiers from the American 44th Tank Batallion. Some dropped to the knees to pray, some too frail from famine fell overcome with emotion. Someone unfurled a large Stars and Stripes over the balcony of the Main Building. The internees strove to overcome their emotions as a lone voice starting “God Bless America . . .”. The crowd joined in.

Their collective sense of mission allowed them to survive when stronger people faltered. In prison, not one of the nurses died of disease or malnutrition, while more than four hundred other internees perished. Their survival as a group was extraordinary.

Once liberated, they returned to America that at first celebrated them, but later refused to honor their leaders with the medals they clearly deserved.



“We Band of Angels” by Elizabeth M. Norman

“The Battle for Manila” by Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson




7 thoughts on “The Battling Belles of Bataan

  1. Hopefully the tide will change. I had history in school from fifth grade thru high school – Philippines History, U.S. History, Oriental History and World History. I must admit I did not particularly like World History till I became an adult. In high school, I liked Math the best.


  2. I studied in UST, and spent a few years in that old main building. I know students consider college can be a “torture” sometimes, but this pales in comparison to the horrific experiences of internees once imprisoned in those same massive silent walls. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My pleasure. I love UST. I wanted to go to college there but Dad thought since some of my friends went there I would never concentrate on my studies. Booooooo.
    Anyway, the atrocities that happened there during the war was so horrendous, I hope Filipinos will remember that part of our history and learned from it.


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